In Decatur, Ga., — about 140 miles due west of Augusta National — the Brick Store Pub will celebrate #OrvalDay today, Saturday, with some 600 other bars, retailers and wholesalers around the U.S. It won’t be a day wildly unlike others at the pub, which aside from its ground floor bar has a separate Belgian Beer Bar garret for its regular devotees of the Belgian Trappist ale.
“People come here for Orval on a daily basis,” said Brick Store general manager Erin Sargent. “But what’s great about Orval Day is we get to introduce new people to this amazing beer.”
Amazing Orval is, for a variety of reasons, starting with its provenance from one of the 12 Trappist breweries around the world entitled to market beer as an authentic Trappist product. That means it meets three conditions: (1) it is produced within abbey walls under the supervision of the resident Benedictine monks (in this case in the lovely Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval in Belgian’s Gaume region, originally founded in 1070); (2) the brewing must be of secondary importance within the monastic community; and (3) the end goal cannot be the pursuit of profit.
“They’re not about getting a bigger bonus or a nicer car,” said Craig Hartinger, the marketing director for Merchant du Vin, located in Seattle, which imports Orval to the U.S. “They’re free of the kind of commercial mandate that most breweries are chasing. All earnings above costs go to charity or the community’s maintenance.”
Orval is unique even within the Trappist brewing community in that it markets only one beer, never on draft, only in .33 liter (11.2 oz.) bowling pin-shaped bottles. For a beer distributed worldwide, the brewery is modest in output, some 65,000 barrels a year. And though it is sold in every U.S. state, it still runs under the radar of the general beer-drinking public here.
Among the U.S. craft-brewing community, it is properly venerated. Hartinger said, “The ‘Trappist’ designation is kind of a magic word to anyone that is a real beer seeker. And a lot of the rock star American brewers mention that Orval is their favorite.”
In Belgium, Orval is part of the country’s cultural identity, twice being featured on postage stamps. (What beer would you put on a U.S. stamp?)
But simply put, the most amazing thing about Orval is its flavor, even though, as Hartinger noted, it’s a little hard to characterize the beer stylistically. It’s broadly in the category of a Belgian Pale Ale at 6.9 percent ABV [alcohol by volume]. “But it’s bottle-conditioned with wild Brettanomyces yeast, which gives it a wonderfully sharp dryness, a certain austerity or astringency or tartness or sharpness, and it evolves in the bottle differently from most beers," he said.
Indeed, the brewery stamps bottles with a “best by” date five years from its bottling. Hartinger recently had one over 20 years old. “It was past its prime, but still recognizably Orval. I think the reasonable, kind of fun zone is about two to six years.”
The sour notes contributed to the beer by the Brettanomyces yeast include aromas that some have referred to as “barnyard” or “horse blanket.” Hartinger said, “Right, to some that’s a complement, while to others that sounds not too appetizing.”
The beer may be an acquired taste, but today would be a good time to acquire it, since Orval Day has its own charitable aspect in the U.S. Merchant du Vin is donating $6 a case (.50 cents a bottle) this year to the Safe Water Network, which helps bring clean, sustainable water to communities in Ghana and India.
This is the fourth Orval Day, and the Brick Store Pub has participated in all of them. The pub is actually one of seven Orval Ambassadors in the U.S., meaning it handles its shipments with due reverence, pours the beers in the proper chalice-like glassware, and has vintages from earlier years aging in its cellars for side-by-side tastings.
“We’re all Orval fans here,” said Sargent. “The only thing we do differently on Orval Day is sell a lot more of it, which is a great way to celebrate the beer.” And as pleased as she sounded about that, she seemed even more excited about a trip she was planning for May — a pilgrimage to the brewery at Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval.
Tom Bedell is, as best that he can discern, the sole member of both the Golf Writers Association of America and the North American Guild of Beer Writers. He writes, and drinks, in Williamsville, Vermont.